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Married with Companies

Profiles of couples who both run their own businesses.
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You think you have trouble managing your company while maintaining some semblance of a healthy family life? Just imagine what a two-company household is like. Here's how some two-CEO couples make it work

Jerome Rafferty is one entrepreneur who is not married to his business. Not that he doesn't feel strongly attached to Rafferty Communications Group International, the consulting company in Torrance, Calif., that he founded in 1975. But he simply can't devote all his entrepreneurial passion to it.

That's because he is, almost literally, married to another business as well.

Actually, the "other business" in Jerome Rafferty's life belongs to his wife, Renata. And it's only natural that he offer a bit of counsel and comfort when her company's growth seems to be hampered by a particularly vexing problem. In 1991, for instance, Renata was convinced that she had hit a wall. After two years of running her company, Rafferty Consulting Group, which provides consulting services to nonprofit organizations, she was ready to give up. The contracts simply weren't coming in. "I thought, 'This is just too hard," recalls Renata, whose company is also based in Torrance. "'I'm going to go work for someone else and come back to this in a couple of years."

But she changed her mind after talking to her husband. "I told her, 'If you quit, you'll never come back. You'll remember how hard it is to get a business going," Jerome recalls saying quietly. "'If you stick with it, it will turn into a real business." Because Jerome was speaking from his own experience as an entrepreneur and not just as a supportive spouse, "I knew he was telling me the truth," says Renata. "I figured, 'If it's not going to get any harder than this, I can do it." After Renata struggled through two more months, the situation started to turn around.

Any day now, such whispered wisdom may replace the romantic sweet nothings that couples once shared. After all, experts say, the Raffertys may soon become the prototypical couple of the 1990s: 2.06 cars, 2.1 televisions, 2.0 companies. Like working mothers during the 1970s and dual-career families in the 1980s, two-company couples are likely to proliferate in the 1990s.

For those who already find it oppressive to manage one company while maintaining some semblance of family unity, the prospect of his-and-her entrepreneurial undertakings may be especially daunting. But Wendy Handler, assistant professor of management at the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at Babson College, points to several factors that make the phenomenon increasingly inescapable.

The rate at which women start businesses has begun to outpace the rate at which men do, she notes, and as woman-owned businesses increase, so do the chances of both members of a couple striking out on their own. "There are many reasons why both members of a particular couple would want to start their own business," Handler argues. "The large number of recent corporate layoffs, the increasing number of businesses operating out of the home, a general distaste for large corporations. . . . " Such trends show no sign of abating.

So look around you. Chances are, the person beside you in bed reading the Tom Clancy novel is harboring thoughts of creating a new venture. The day might soon come when you and your spouse have two little bundles of commercial joy to fret and fuss over, along with all the requisite late-night nurturing and round-the-clock trepidation. Just think: two top lines in which to delight, along with two bottom lines about which to brood. How will you manage it? With some difficulty, to be sure. Why would you want to? Believe it or not, there are advantages to having two entrepreneurs under one roof. Here are some of the merits of the two-company lifestyle, as described by couples who are already living it.

* * *

One

You don't have to explain why you missed dinner. And breakfast, too
Look at it this way: as a result of reading Deborah Tannen's runaway bestseller, You Just Don't Understand -- or, at the very least, the title -- everyone is only too aware of the pesky communication gap between the genders. But when each member of a couple experiences the travails of running a business on a daily basis, the two can't help having a better understanding of one another. Twenty-four hours a day.

Ron Sacino knows that sometimes his wife, Sherry Sacino, CEO of Sherry Wheatley Sacino Inc., a marketing firm in St. Petersburg, Fla., might have to fly off to Washington, D.C., at a moment's notice for a last-minute press conference. But he has no problem with that. As CEO of Sacino's Formalwear, a 25-store chain of tuxedo shops in St. Petersburg, he genuinely understands last-minute disasters. "If I were married to a 'nine-to-fiver,' the relationship would be totally different," says Ron. "We have empathy for each other. We each know what's necessary for the other to succeed." Ron appreciated that two-way empathy when he recently needed to stay late three nights in a row to train a new group of workers for an incipient telemarketing division. "I know there are certain things that Ron just has to be there for," says Sherry. "If I just worked for somebody else, I might not understand that."

* * *

Two

You get free advice, delivered in a timely (and inescapable) manner
Aside from empathy, entrepreneurial couples can also offer each other concrete help. "I've done many things differently because of Sherry's input," says Ron. "She's an exceptional marketer."

Back in 1993, for instance, Ron wanted to find a corporate partner to help underwrite his annual prom-season promotions. Rather than simply paying to print up 10,000 T-shirts and then giving them out free with every tuxedo rental -- as he had typically done -- he wanted to identify a company that would be interested in tapping the same high school demographics, thereby helping defray his costs. Ron knew he should think big. "But I didn't think as big as Sherry did," he concedes.

Having had considerable experience with cross promotions -- from her job as an in-store publicity manager at McDonald's to her current incarnation as CEO of a firm specializing in strategic alliances -- Sherry suggested to Ron that he aim for Coca-Cola or PepsiCo. "I figured they were way out of our league," admits Ron. "But Sherry said, 'How do you know that unless you try?' So we tried."

And succeeded.

Pepsi signed on and supplied Ron with 12,000 T-shirts; he gave out a free T-shirt with every tux rental, while Pepsi placed on selected cans stickers that kids could peel off and instantly win a T-shirt or a free or discounted tux rental.

"We got to ride on the coattails of very strong brand recognition, which gave us more credibility in the marketplace," says Ron. "And Pepsi got into schools where Coke had had a foothold." He reports that in the first year of the promotion his prom business rose 15%. Another positive result: a good working relationship with Pepsi, which Ron attributes to Sherry's advice.

Of course, Sherry's marketing efforts are not entirely altruistic. Being married to Ron, she benefits financially from Ron's gain. But Sherry gets an even more appreciable return on her advisory investment: tapping Ron's operational expertise, particularly in human resources.

In 1989 Sherry Sacino was having trouble taking action on an employee she knew she had to let go. "At the time, we were really running out of money," says Sherry. "I couldn't afford to keep her." Sherry's penchant for developing friendships with her employees and her particularly close relationship with this one didn't make her decision any easier. Further compounding Sherry's ambivalence was the fact that the employee served as her family's breadwinner: her husband was out of a job; she had one child about to enter college and another already there. "I thought, 'What will she do without me? She'll get thrown out of her apartment.' I worried about it for a long time, wondering what to do." Finally, Sherry asked for Ron's advice.

Since Ron operates 25 retail stores, he deals regularly -- more regularly than he might like -- with the touchy issues of hiring and firing. During a long walk on the beach one morning, "Ron helped me see that I'm not as integral a part of my employees' lives as I tend to think I am," recalls Sherry. "I always thought that I had to wait until I had my last nickel in the bank before I could justifiably let someone go." Ron also helped Sherry see that if the employee didn't fit with what she was trying to do, she shouldn't let their friendship stand in the way.

"Ron persuaded me to give myself permission to do what I had to do," Sherry says. "He helped me feel that what I was about to do was the right thing."

Of course, part of being a useful live-in adviser is knowing when to withhold advice. Sherry says that when she's in the process of formulating an idea or a strategy, she really can't discuss it with Ron. "When I'm thinking through an idea, stay out of my way. It's not pretty," says Sherry. Ron says he used to rush in, but Sherry's stony glare eventually convinced him that discretion was the better part of marriage. "Sometimes Sherry doesn't want my two cents," says Ron. "I've learned to identify those periods. Usually after I've opened my mouth." Ron says he now knows when to give Sherry her space, and he offers advice only when advice is being sought.

But even when one spouse does seek out the other, that doesn't necessarily mean he or she is looking for words of wisdom -- or any words at all. "Often I'll ask a question and I don't really want an answer. Or maybe it's that I don't want the answer that she gives me," says Bill Hamilton, who co-owns Paragon General Contractors & Cabinetmakers, in Point Richmond, Calif. "Sometimes I already have my mind made up. I just want to hear how my decision sounds."

Hamilton's wife, Robin Bradford, CEO of Bradford Personnel, a temporary-employment agency in San Francisco, admits there are times she has to resist telling Bill what to do. "I've dealt with that problem before, and I don't want him to have to go through it," says Robin. "There's a tendency to try to solve the other person's problems. But sometimes the other person doesn't really want a fix. He just wants someone who'll listen or ask questions. You have to strike a balance between suggestive input and creative listening."

* * *

Three

You have a very convenient yardstick by which to measure your own company's progress -- or lack thereof
Sometimes you don't even know you're having trouble with something until you watch another person do it -- as in nailing down the proper golf swing or achieving perfect form in weight training.

In two-company couples, each spouse benefits just from being able to see how someone else runs his or her business. Granted, you can get that sort of data elsewhere: conferences, outside boards, CEO networking groups. But the information you get from those can't compare with the frequency, depth, and candor of the information you can get from your spouse. "Being married to Bill, I get an intimate view of how another company operates," says Robin Bradford. "It's a view that I could never get as an outsider."

Both Robin and Bill have an opportunity to see another business -- in all its gory details -- from the inside out.

For instance, during the recent recession, Robin says, she just focused on surviving in a very volatile marketplace. "My goals were making sure I still had a company and keeping my staff intact," she says. "I elected not to lay off a lot of staff during the recession."

Bill, on the other hand, concentrated on profitability. As a result, he says, he actually became more selective about the sort of client with whom he chose to work. Paragon General Contractors & Cabinetmakers specializes in high-end residential construction. In Sleepless in Seattle Tom Hanks and Rob Reiner wrestle with just the type of client Bill decided to sidestep: a person whose demands shift more frequently than Roseanne's marital status. "We started politely declining to bid on jobs we thought would be . . . problematic," he says. He adds, "No one is going to make clients like those happy, and whoever signs up with them is going to lose money trying."

Bill was also a bit more pragmatic than Robin about letting people go. "We are as sensitive as we can be about layoffs," he says, "but we have a strong dedication to the health of the organization, whose continued existence creates jobs." Just before the recession, he had trimmed his staff from 90 to 65. Since he was being more selective and looking for the better-quality contracts, Bill says, he had to drive down his fixed costs to maintain a 7% profit margin. And payroll was a natural target.

Both Robin and Bill believe that Bill's company endured the recession better than Robin's. "We've done well, but our bottom line suffered," says Robin. "There was a price to pay for holding on to my employees, and it came out of my pocket." After eyeing Bill's strategy closely, Robin came out admiring his approach -- and determined to emulate it in the future. "He's done things on a much bigger scale than I've been able to do," says Robin. "He's implemented employee incentive programs, like bonus systems and a 401(k), while I've only been able to just think about it."

Of course, a situation like that could just as well inspire one of countless petty human emotions -- like, say, jealousy. For instance, not long after Jerome Rafferty helped his wife, Renata, break through her aforementioned wall, she found her company's services in great demand. So much so, recalls Jerome, that "people would come up to me after hearing her speak at a conference and say, 'Wow, you're Renata's husband!" But Jerome says he had no problem with Renata's newfound success; it even fired him up. After a while, anyway. "It took some getting used to," he admits.

* * *

Four

You see each other's work, but you don't see each other at work
"Copreneurs" they came to be called. You remember: not long ago experts were holding them up as cozy examples of compulsively cocooning baby boomers. They were couples who set out to build a life -- and a business -- together. And together they were, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a -- well, you get the idea. They were together until they couldn't stand it anymore.

Which is one risk that two-company couples -- who are not yet identified by a spiffy neologism -- can avoid. "The copreneurial couple have a difficult time becoming independent and growing as individuals," says Jane Hilburt-Davis, a psychotherapist and family-business consultant in Boston. "Whereas members of the two-company couple each have their own place to establish their own identity and build self-esteem."

Mary and Ron Rosberg have tried both configurations. In 1970 they founded Repo Depo, a retailer of new and used office furniture, equipment, and supplies in Burlingame, Calif., and worked together for five years before Ron went off to run his own cellular-phone company. While he was with Repo Depo, Ron was in charge of sales and purchasing; Mary took on the administrative and accounting duties. At first the arrangement seemed to work out. But around 1975 they began to sense problems. "We had different ideas on how to do things," says Ron. "She's very methodical, weighing all the pros and cons. I'm more impulsive, more decisive. I'm a risk taker and Mary is not." They found that their different work styles caused . . . well . . . tension. "Sometimes we were stubborn and didn't see the other's side," says Mary. "It put extra strain on the marriage."

Tempers would flare, for example, over purchasing decisions. "Ron would come to me wanting to spend x number of dollars to buy merchandise," says Mary. "I would say we shouldn't spend that much money, because we had a certain thing coming down the pike and it wouldn't be smart as far as cash flow was concerned. He didn't want to hear that."

Both agree that their relationship is much better off now that they aren't in each other's presence all the time. Before, they had to confer on almost everything that happened in the business. "Now if Ron helps me out with anything," says Mary, "it's on a specific item or problem." The Rosbergs get to tap each other's strengths without getting on each other's nerves. Mary employs Ron's expertise on matters like advertising copy or lease negotiation, while Ron turns to Mary for advice on issues ranging from whether to take a delinquent account to small-claims court to how to handle employee theft. "Now we get the best of both worlds," Mary notes. "I get his decision-making abilities, although now I don't have to do what he says."

* * *

Five

You're forced to set rules limiting shoptalk -- or suffer terminal boredom
"We have two separate businesses, and each by itself has the capacity to consume our lives," says Renata Rafferty. "Because of the businesses, all we wind up doing is talking about work." And that can poison a marriage -- as she well knows. "We wound up spending all of our time together as businesspeople," she says, "which left no time to talk about the dog or the cats or the plumbing or our relationship." (Presumably, not in that order.)

So they made a rule: they stop discussing anything business-related at 6 p.m. "Unless, of course, it's critical," says Renata, "but then we ask first." The Raffertys say this admittedly arbitrary cut-off time was necessary to ensure marital serenity. "Jerome and I genuinely like each other," says Renata. "But when we discuss business we don't always like each other."

Robin Bradford also doesn't like to talk about business. But when the day is done, Bill Hamilton finds he really needs to decompress. Initially, Robin thought she owed it to her husband to at least feign interest in his mind dump. But she had to be honest with herself and with Bill: she hated it. So they figured they should set ground rules. They limit business discussions to 15 minutes, long enough to allow for productive discourse but not so long as to eat away the better part of an evening. Bill confesses that he sometimes gets the urge to break the rules and gripe at length about a particularly unruly client. But he respects the quarter-hour mandate. "It's too easy to just talk about business and not talk about the family or our relationship," he says.

Like the Raffertys, Bill and Robin remain flexible. "If I really want her opinion, I'll ask," says Bill. Which doesn't necessarily mean that Robin will answer: she finds it much easier than Bill does to separate herself from business. And if she's not in business mode, she'll let Bill know. "If she really doesn't want to talk, I respect that," he concedes. "In fact, I try to emulate that."

* * *

Six

You can justify hiring household help. Lots of it
You might imagine that with the logistics of running two different businesses, standard two-company couples might need a little help when it comes to home life. Well, no. Actually, they need a lot of help.

Many couples find they need to hire some kind of domestic help, whether it's an au pair to look after the kids, a housekeeper to pick up after the kids, or a personal chef to cook after the kids are long gone.

Robin Bradford and Bill Hamilton decided they were going to have to wait to become parents. "I wanted to get the company up and running before I had kids," Robin says. She realized that she was going to have to throw a lot of hours at the business in the next few years to grow it to a comfortable size. "So we made a conscious choice to wait before we had kids." Robin had their first child at the age of 37. She and Bill now have two kids, ages 6 and 8.

Even though they postponed having children to a marginally less zany time, Robin and Bill still felt it was necessary to bring in an au pair. "It would be impossible to live our life without help," says Robin. "We had live-in help for seven years, up until a couple of months ago. Now we just have someone who picks up the kids and stays with them until we get home."

Other two-company couples simply decide they aren't going to have any children. Sherry and Ron Sacino feel that way; they're just not a kids couple, they say. "I need more independence than that," Sherry says. "I'm too spontaneous." Ron Sacino says that, although they never say never, right now kids aren't a part of the game plan. "Our lifestyle is not conducive to having kids right now," he explains. "Unless one of us gives up the business, we couldn't do it. And neither of us is the stay-at-home type."

Even without kids, the Sacinos have relegated the running of the household to a personal assistant. "Basically, we hired ourselves a nanny," says Sherry. The assistant helps with "all of life's little details," such as cleaning the house, paying the bills, decorating the house for Christmas, and shopping for holiday gifts. "We figure that people do only five things well and that you should identify those things and master them," explains Sherry. "I have zero domestic ability, and Ron knows he doesn't have any, either."

The Sacinos say that their crazy hours and hectic pace make eating regularly -- and healthfully -- a challenge. "We're both working our tushes off," says Ron. "Who's got time for buying groceries, let alone cooking?" Enter the personal chef, who specializes in low-fat and no-fat fare. "He cooks us healthy meals that we wouldn't have time to prepare for ourselves," says Sherry.

To keep the expense at a minimum, the Sacinos recruited a sous chef from a local restaurant who was looking to make some extra money. He's not a live-in; he just comes in to prepare the meals. "It costs us between $10 and $20 a person for each meal. If we ate out at restaurants, it would cost a lot more," Ron claims. "You can't get a healthy meal for $10 a person."

* * *

Seven

You learn to value your relationship more. Or else
Robin Bradford admits that her relationship with Bill suffers from what she calls lack of TLC. "You can't say, 'I don't have time for you' to the kids, but you can put off dinner with your spouse," she admits. "There are only so many hours in a day." Robin says that although both she and Bill are aware of the danger, it would be all too easy to let a gap develop between them. "He knows that he wins the Most-Likely-to-Get-Blown-Off Award, because he's in business, too. Still, it doesn't justify it." Bill admits that sometimes he feels that the business gets the best part of him, with the kids coming in a close second. "The marriage unfortunately tends to come third," he says.

So there's no question that the stresses of having two companies in the family can place a strain on marital relations. But a number of couples have found that their arrangement makes them hyperaware of that danger. What really ends marriages, they say, is when one spouse doesn't understand what the other needs to do to grow a business.

When Elsa Brown started International Marketing Specialists Inc., a seller of industrial equipment and developer of medical-waste treatment facilities in St. Louis, in 1983, her husband was a high school teacher. He's not her husband anymore. "It was very difficult for me to explain to him why I had to spend so much time with the business," says Brown. "My ex-husband thought business was boring. So when I told him about problems I was having with the business, he couldn't contribute." Brown says that since he didn't understand what she was trying to accomplish, she got a lot of negative input from him. "When I discussed a new business idea with him, he'd use words like risky and dangerous," she says.

When Brown remarried, she found a mate who shared her goals: another entrepreneur. Her current husband, Burgess J. Brown Jr., owner of Stephen's Pipe and Steel, in Russell Springs, Ky., is in a much better position to understand. "B.J. is in the same boat that I am," Brown says. "He can analyze the risks with me, rather than just being negative. I don't want someone arguing with me about what to do. I want someone who can tell me how to do it better."

Such interactions may not sound all that romantic. But, frankly, some entrepreneurs actually find living with a fellow business owner to be downright alluring. Once they adjust to it, they can't imagine life any other way. "A lot of what I respect and love about Robin is echoed in her business abilities," claims Bill Hamilton.

According to Hamilton, there's something, well, sexy about being entrepreneurs in love. "When I first met Robin and saw what she'd done on her own, I knew she would be exciting to be around," he says. However, he adds, "little did I know that I was going to be so attracted to and stimulated by the fact that she was an entrepreneur."

So maybe you ought to forgo those separate vacations you've been planning. Separate companies might provide a much livelier spark.

Last updated: May 1, 1995




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